As the demand for skilled workers in STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—increases globally, educators and employers are finding ways to increase the size of the applicant pool. It’s widely accepted that a student’s interest in pursuing STEM-related careers is affected by gender, prior academic achievement, and family support for science and mathematics. However, in a study recently published in Science Advances, researchers have show that students are heavily influenced by their peers’ interest in STEM as well. “We were surprised by the consistency and magnitude of the results,” said Allison Godwin, an assistant professor of engineering education at Purdue University, US, who worked on the study.
“Our findings indicate that experiencing even one science course in which students perceive a quorum of interest among their peers can have a significant effect on their career choices.” Humans have been found to “catch” emotions of others—a concept called emotional contagion. It’s appeared in psychology, sociology and history, but hasn’t been widely applied to classroom contexts.
This is important because research points to adolescents being more susceptible to peer influence. The results provide insight into what can be done in high school science classes to promote interest among all students and potentially bring greater numbers of them into STEM careers. They stress the importance of motivation, which is often disregarded in STEM education research in favour of achievement and conceptual outcomes.